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23 January 2014

Spotlight: Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation

Whilst reviewing tech transfer in central US, GUV takes a closer look at one of the oldest tech transfer organisations in the world.

Author: Gregg Bayes-Brown, editor

It would, of course, be criminal to pass through the mid-US without mentioning the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), the technology transfer unit of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the biggest university in the state and one of the two main research institutions (the other being University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee).

One of the oldest – if not the oldest – technology transfer organisations in existence, WARF can trace its roots back to 1925.  The unit was founded by Harry Steenbock, a professor at the university, who invented the process for using ultraviolet radiation to add vitamin D to food – most notably milk. After testing the process on rodent food, he found the rodents were cured of rickets, a bone softening disease which we now know to be caused by a lack of vitamin D. Rather than leaving the process unpatented, which was common practice at the time for university innovations, Steenbock patented it with his own money.

He was then approached by food company Quaker Oats with an offer worth approximately $10m today. Rather than selling the rights, Steenbock believed the money should come back to the university. He set about forming WARF with nine other members of the university, which then went on to sign its first licensing agreement with Quaker Oats for the technology, and then subsequently on to pharmaceutical companies for similar deals, with the proceeds coming back to fund further research at the university.

By the time the patent expired in 1945, rickets was nearly eradicated in the US.

Another major discovery tied to WARF is that of the anticoagulant drug Warfarin, named after the unit. Today the most widely used anticoagulant in the world, this discovery stems from a farmer turning up unannounced in 1933 with a dead cow and a milk can full of blood which would not coagulate. Eight years later, the anticoagulant was isolated, and first found success as a pest control agent before becoming a medicine.

To this day, the majority of WARF’s income (around 70%) still comes from Vitamin D. In the time in between, WARF has obtained 2,300 US patents on UW-Madison innovation, completed over 1,600 license agreements, and given $1.24bn back to the university to fund research. It has also built on its original successes with diagnostics for cardiovascular disease, radiotherapy treatments for cancer, and breakthroughs with human embryonic stem cells.

It currently manages an endowment of around $2bn, and provides annual gifts back to the university to improve staffing, faculty grants, fellowships, equipment, facilities, and partnerships for research. While the gift size is unrestricted, recently the gifts have been in excess of $45m.

WARF has also spun off another tech transfer unit, WiSys, to serve other universities in the University of Madison system, as well as launching the WARF Accelerator Program as a Launchpad for UW-Madison businesses. Most recently, WARF has partnered with the State of Wisconsin Investment Board to launch 4490 Ventures – a $30m venture fund focusing on early-stage technology firms in the Wisconsin area, and due to start making investments in the first half of this year.

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